The Thing

The Thing

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

On its initial release in 1982, Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic attracted notoriety and controversy for its gory, stomach-churning special effects. Now it seems most notable as one of the high points of a remarkable directorial career about to go pear-shaped in the extreme.

Working with a major studio for the first time, he took advantage of a bigger budget to create a film whose production values still stand up well today – but placed them in a bleak, pessimistic story peopled by not all that likeable anti-heroes and misfits.

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Released in the same year as E.T. : The Extra-Terrestrial, it performed badly at the box office and (honourable exceptions such as Starman aside) set in motion a critical and commercial decline in Carpenter's career that has continued up to the present day. Hopefully this splendid DVD re-release will introduce a new generation to his talents – and to a film that established the template for the modern action movie and gleefully subverted it at the same time.

It opens with a shot of a helicopter chasing a sled dog across the Antarctic wilderness. The two men on board are Norwegian scientists from a research station. As the dog takes refuge in a neighbouring American station the helicopter lands. The pilot attempts to throw a thermal charge at the dog but drops it, blowing himself and the helicopter up. The surviving Norwegian charges through the camp, firing wildly at the dog, until he is shot dead by the camp’s commander Gary (Donald Moffat).

Understandably spooked, a team led by the base’s helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) investigates the Norwegian station. They find a scene of carnage, with dead bodies everywhere – two of them fused together in a grotesque, inhuman shape – and evidence that the Norwegians have dug something out of the ice.

That something turns out to be an alien life form, whose spacecraft crash-landed on Earth thousands of years ago and has remained frozen ever since. The life form is essentially a hostile virus, which can mutate to take the shape of any living thing.

You’ve guessed it – the dog, which has been wandering around the station all day and is now penned up with the Americans’ huskies, is the life form. And that night, while Dr Blair (Wilford Brimley) performs an autopsy on the mutated cadaver from the Norwegian station, it gets down to the serious business of colonising the world.

This scene, where a pen-full of sled dogs is turned into a towering, Lovecraftian cheese-dream monstrosity, still packs a punch 25 years on. A riot of spider limbs, multiple heads and mouths within mouths, the Thing is one of the great sci-fi demons. The lack of CGI technology meant that the special effects team (including Stan Winston, in one of his early triumphs) had to work with natural materials and the results are all the better for it. Put another way, it looks bloody real.

One can sympathise with the Americans’ reactions – sheer, jaw-on-the-floor amazement and terror. Eventually snapping out of it, Childs (Keith David) grabs a flamethrower and gives it a burst. The Thing vamooses, but it’s clear they haven’t killed it and as they attempt to track it down the realisation dawns that “it could be any one of us”.

The original, called The Thing From Another World, was directed by Christian Nyby but had a huge amount of input from producer Howard Hawks and this film has a very Hawksian fascination with the dynamics of an all-male group. Unlike the original, there are no female characters and the team’s escalating paranoia, power struggles and macho posturing (or, in some cases, wholesale plot-losing) clearly inspired many of the later efforts by James Cameron, John McTiernan et al.

But they also recall Carpenter’s early classic, the ‘anti-2001’ Dark Star – because, for action movie heroes, these guys are actually a bit rubbish. Only MacReady and Childs have any real clue as to how to go about dealing with the Thing. And there’s no equivalent of the original’s concerned brainiac, desperate to study and communicate with this unique organism. Here the approach is a somewhat more Reagan-era ‘nuke the sonofabitch’. And despite the remarkable amount of weaponry and explosives on this ‘scientific’ station, this proves easier said than done.

Meanwhile, a whiteout’s coming, Blair’s gone mad and smashed the radio, a computer projection has calculated that the Thing could infect the entire planet inside three years – and it’s ready to come in from the cold...

Most people who first saw this film as the centrepiece of a lads’ night in during its afterlife in the early days of the video boom will remember the ‘eeeuuughhh!’ moments from these climactic scenes: the chest that develops a nice set of gnashers mid-autopsy and takes a scientist’s arms off at the elbow; the severed head growing spider limbs and scuttling across the floor; the smear of infected blood in a petri dish that jumps when burned.

But they also generate whipcord edge of the seat tension as these believably flawed but resilient characters, whom you’ve genuinely come to care about, try to stay alive and defeat the ultimate enemy. Russell, Carpenter’s favourite leading man, takes centre stage but the supporting cast (not so well-known, and therefore highly disposable) bat right down the order; a convincing array of cabin fever-ed dweebs, techies and stoners, with the odd gormless artisan thrown in. Unlike the blue-collar super pros of Cameron and McTiernan’s actioners these are a shambling, Seventies-flavoured bunch; not the best people to save the world, really, and for that reason you root for them even more.

This is definitely not for the squeamish, or anyone whose idea of movie heaven is a subtle, introspective chamber piece. And, truth be told, there are some moments in the middle section when Carpenter relaxes his grip on your throat somewhat. But for the most part this is a classic white-knuckle ride, as good as any modern action movie, with the added bonus of some truly striking images and a bleak, ambiguous ending from another era entirely.

Watching this again, I can’t believe that Carpenter hasn’t got another classic in him somewhere. We can only live in hope...

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2008
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A group of scientists at an Antarctic research station discover a killer alien that can mutate into any life-form it touches. See it in all its glory in big-screen re-release.
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